Thursday, May 30, 2024

Students, staff confront racist comments made toward employee

By Bryn Fawn

Masses of students gathered for a speak-out session in the Warren Ballrooms at Angell College Center Nov. 18 showing support for a Black SUNY Plattsburgh staff member. Later they gathered in Kehoe in an act of protest, demanding answers from staff and administration.

The incident in question occurred Nov. 1 and was detailed in a campus-wide email Nov. 17. Troy Joseph, director of undergraduate admissions, received an anonymous email signed “Concerned” alleging Joseph’s coworkers made racist remarks about him. 

In response, several BIPOC clubs on campus, including Fuerza, African Unity and Black Onyx, organized a protest to occur at noon the next day, after the speak-out held in the Warren Ballrooms in the Angell College Center. They planned to begin the protest 15 minutes after the speak-out, congregating in Kehoe until the building closed for the day, at 4 p.m.

“This is an opportunity to not simply voice our anger but to finally put our feelings into productive action,” Black Onyx’s Instagram post read. “We are asking you to stand up. Together we can stand up and end this discrimination.”

Students filled the ballrooms, many standing within the doorway, to observe Allison Heard, the vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, speak. Some admission employees also attended, including Tonya Baker, Bonnie Boadway-Gonyea and Cassandra Day. Students who planned to participate in the protest arrived with signs. One read, “Black faculty matter!” Another read, “We stand against hate speech.” University Police were on site. 

Heard said she believed in the validity of the Title IX report. 

“Only three to seven percent of a chance, statistically, that a report you get is phony or fakely reported,” Heard said.

Heard encouraged advocacy on campus.

“People need to speak up,” Heard said. “You have to say something. One of the things I have been hearing on campus is that a lot of things happen. People report things all the time. And I ask people, ‘What happened that has actually been reported and nothing has happened?’ because to me, that’s a problem.”

The departments investigating the incident — UP, HR and Information Technology Services — discovered the email could not be traced and reached “a dead end.” UP Chief Patrick Rascoe said the IP address for the email led to a virtual private network in Switzerland. Hence, UP has no legal jurisdiction to investigate further.

Assistant Director of HR Michelle Trombley said it is “inappropriate” for HR to interview everyone within the admissions department despite some students demanding that action. 

Heard said the entire admissions department cannot be fired to “start fresh,” noting that the admissions office also hires student employees.

“I think it’s a problem firing people for no reason,” Heard said. “Some people work real hard in the admissions department. I think people who are not working real hard and who are not moving in the direction of our community and culture, those people I’m willing to let go.”

Joseph then shared the email he received, projecting it onto a screen.

“Be very careful who you trust. Many people around you are not who they appear,” the email read. “[An individual] directly affected by the changes was very upset about you and your new role, and made very rude and disrespectful comments as the others laughed. The most vocal … felt that you were selected for the role because you are black and the campus is trying to do the right thing. She was sure your leadership would fail as no one takes you seriously and you were a poor [Head N**** in Charge].”

Joseph then took the microphone to speak and was met with thunderous applause.

“I am choosing to share this with everybody,” Joseph said. “We need to know exactly what we face and the level of hate that I had to deal with and have been dealing with for the last three weeks.”

Joseph shared he was promoted two months ago, but has been at SUNY Plattsburgh for nine years as staff and as a student, graduating in 2010.

“I worked my ass off,” Joseph said. “And on Nov. 1, I came into the office to this email. I spent most of my life in the Bronx, racism isn’t new to me. We are in an educational setting. So when I was getting degraded to nothing more but ‘Head N**** in Charge’ because I’m Black, that really, really, really stuck with me.”

Joseph shared his disappointment. He spoke on BIPOC history and how Black individuals have fought for leadership positions like his own. 

“This hurt me at levels no one else will ever know. This is a burden I have to carry,” Joseph said. “I trust nobody. That is the awful truth.”

Joseph shared that he has been appointed for one year and will not be leaving any time soon. He also shared he had been emailed 402 times in the six hours leading up to the speak-out and requested that people not send messages to him. 

At the end of the speak-out, Heard began a healing circle, having faculty come to the front of the room holding signs. Students left the room en masse to begin their protest. UP trailed behind the crowd as they walked through the Amitie Plaza to Kehoe.

Students squeezed themselves into the second floor of Kehoe, taking the elevator in groups to the sixth floor. On the sixth floor, protestors were wedged wall to wall. Those coming up to the floor had difficulty leaving the elevator. They chanted: “Black lives matter,” “Black faculty lives matter” and “No justice, no peace.” Carrie Woodward, director of graduate admissions who had previously held Joseph’s title, was in her office at the time. She did not attend the speak-out. 

Students questioned Woodward’s motives, asking her why she had not attended when her colleagues had. Woodward stated she had taken enough diversity training and felt it was unnecessary to attend. This upset the crowd, and some students had outbursts, accusing Woodward of being the staff to have made the racist remarks and others shouted. 

Mediators in the crowd tried to settle them down and guided discussion, letting students speak one-at-a-time to ask questions. SUNY Plattsburgh President President Alexander Enyedi and Heard assisted Woodward in answering questions and addressing students’ grievances.

The crowd left before 4 p.m.

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